False populism and the myth of the gun-hating Toronto elite

TheStar.com – News/Canada
Published On Sat Sep 18 2010.   By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist

As most Canadians know, there are real, if sometimes subtle, differences between this country and the United States.

We use vinegar on our French fries. They call brown toast whole wheat. We say eh. They say huh. A Canadian gallon is bigger than an American gallon.

Our Liberals are conservative while their conservatives are nuts.

So it’s intriguing to see our Conservatives (who, at times, are simply confused) attempting to graft American categories onto the Canadian political system.

That’s what federal House Leader John Baird was doing this week when he described the dispute over the long-gun registry as a battle between authentic Canadians and the “Toronto elites.”

It was a direct steal from the language of U.S. right-wing populism, which pits so-called real Americans (also known as God-fearing patriots) against an alien conspiracy usually referred to as the liberal elite.

In this, America’s far right is building on a long history of nativist suspicion which, over time, has been variously aimed at Catholics, Jews, Mexicans, Chinese, blacks, Muslims and pointy-headed intellectuals.

The Know-Nothings of the 1850s (so-called because, when asked about their organization they were to reply ‘I know nothing’) feared that America was being overrun by Catholics and Germans. Today’s Tea Partiers think U.S. President Barack Obama is a closet Muslim socialist.

But the essence of this right populism is always expressed in similar terms – as a struggle between authentic Americans and outsiders who, aided by willing liberal dupes, have wangled their way into positions of influence.

There’s a right populism in Canada too, but of a different sort. It found its most complete expression in the Social Credit Party of 1930s Alberta. But even here, the Socreds — with their critiques of the banks and railroads—were far closer in spirit to the left populists of neighbouring Saskatchewan (later the New Democrats) than to, say, U.S. Klansmen.

Today too, Canadian right-populists are, in relative terms, models of moderation. Rob Ford — the Toronto mayoralty candidate most often compared to the Tea Partiers — would be viewed as a big-spending liberal in the U.S.

After all, he does want government to build subways — a notion that most American über-conservatives would deem dangerously communist.

Incidentally, cross-border differences also explain why Quebec media mogul Pierre-Karl Péladeau dumped former Stephen Harper aide Kory Teneycke as head of his planned Sun TV network.

Teneycke had encouraged talk of Sun TV becoming a Canadian version of Fox News — the mouthpiece for lunatic right populism in the U.S. As Péladeau found out, that notion doesn’t fly as well in Canada — even among conservatives.

All of which brings us back to Baird and his deliberate attack on so-called Toronto elites for supporting the gun registry.

Of course, the categorization wasn’t true. Not only does support for gun control exist beyond the boundaries of Toronto, but members of Canada’s elite — including Baird — oppose the registry.

However, his comments weren’t meant to be factually accurate. Rather, they were designed to tap into U.S.-style resentments.

And here, I think Baird blew it.

True, most Canadians like to carp at Toronto. I grew up in Northern Ontario badmouthing the city (although, like most professed Toronto-phobes, I liked to go there).

But these casual regional resentments are on a different plane from the deeply-embedded ideological fissures that define American politics. In their guts, Canadians know that.

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